Marching forward: military strategies in business contexts

Gary Dean
Gary Dean

By Gary Dean, managing director at strategic consultancy, Truffle Pig Consulting.

Sometimes, when I give talks about strategic management, I get questioned about whether military strategies can be applied to business situations.

Though I have studied military strategy in some detail I usually avoid adding it to my discussions because war is predicated on the assumption that one side must be destroyed. For me, that’s contrary to what I think business can, and should, aim to be. I believe that business is not a zero-sum game.

However, it is also true that the high stakes world of business mirrors the intensity of the battlefield. It’s no surprise then, that successful business strategies offered and indeed made infamous, often draw parallels with time-honoured military tactics.

So, I thought this month we would explore a few strategies inspired by military operations, namely – Sun Tzu’s Art of War, The OODA Loop, and Von Clausewitz’s Centre of Gravity, and discuss how they could be effectively used in a business context.

Sun Tzu’s Art of War is perhaps the most iconic military strategy text and one that is widely applied in business.

Its key principle emphasises the importance of planning and information in achieving victory. A detailed understanding of the competitive landscape, including the strengths and weaknesses of both one’s own business and your competitors, allows for strategic positioning.

This is a basic principle of what in today’s jargon is often called ‘competitor analysis’, and it’s certainly a very important tool.

It underscores the necessity of intelligence-gathering, whether it’s market research or competitive analysis, which can pave the way to develop a strong business plan. Additionally, and this is an element I like to champion, is that Sun Tzu’s strategy prioritises ‘winning without fighting’.

This is like gaining market share without engaging in price wars or destructive competition, highlighting the value of collaboration, partnerships, and mergers.

Next, we can consider the OODA Loop, formulated by U.S. Air Force Colonel John Boyd, and which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. It’s a continual feedback loop that is used to assess situations, make decisions, and implement actions faster than competitors. In business terms, this strategy emphasises the significance of agility and adaptability.

A company that observes market trends, orients itself towards those changes, decides on a course of action, and acts quickly can outmanoeuvre its competition.

The OODA Loop encourages businesses to foster a culture of constant learning and quick decision-making, enabling them to adapt to changing market conditions effectively.

Von Clausewitz’s concept of the ‘Centre of Gravity’ is a principle in military strategy that identifies the source of an opponent’s power.

By directing attacks towards this point, one can destabilise the enemy effectively.

In business, this strategy can be translated to mean identifying and understanding the core strength of your competitors and devising strategies that neutralise these advantages. For example, if a competitor’s strength lies in its extensive distribution network, a company could counter this by focusing on online sales or partnering with a greater number of local retailers.

And now the warning.

It’s also crucial to understand the potential pitfalls of applying military strategies to business. As I pointed out earlier, the battlefield is inherently a zero-sum game – one wins at the expense of the other’s total loss.

However, business is more complex, often offering the potential for multiple parties to benefit. For example, partnerships can be formed that create value for both companies involved, creating a win-win scenario.

Furthermore, unlike the military, where orders are followed without question, most businesses operate best when they encourage innovation, creativity, and yes, even a level of dissent. This involves cultivating an organisational culture that is fundamentally different from a military one.

Thus, while military strategies offer valuable insights, they should be adapted carefully to fit a business context.

Sun Tzu’s Art of War, The OODA Loop, and Von Clausewitz’s Centre of Gravity offer valuable strategic insights that can be applied in a business environment. These strategies emphasise the importance of information gathering, agility, and identifying competitive advantages.

However, one must exercise caution while drawing these parallels, ensuring the core values and culture of a business are not compromised.

It’s not about transforming a company into a military unit, but about borrowing elements of strategy that can add strength and versatility to a business’s competitive arsenal.